I have been reading Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington. It is a remarkable first-hand account of a slave boy who, through hard work, determination, and a positive attitude, grew up to become the driving force at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. Along the way, he guided Tuskegee to its position as one of the nation’s leading schools for African-Americans, and Washington became one of the nation’s leading citizens.
Young Booker grew up the son of a slave cook on a plantation near Roanoke, Virginia. He knew nothing of his father. Although his mother prepared meals for the residents of the “big house,” she and her children had only one plate and fork to share among them. They lived in a tiny, dirt-floor cabin. He writes, “Three children—John, my older brother, Amanda, my sister, and myself—had a pallet on the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.”
Washington writes that he cannot remember a time during slavery when he was able to play, as we know it. He spent his waking hours working. He and the other slaves did not sit down to meals; each individual snatched some scraps when and where they could, usually while standing and with no plates or utensils.
On the day shortly after the end of the Civil War, when Booker was nine years old, a Yankee soldier showed up on the plantation and told them that they were now free: they could go and do what they wished. The slaves of Booker’s plantation stood stunned, unsure of what they should do or where they should go. Eventually, after tearful good-byes with their former masters, Booker’s mother took him and his siblings to the coal country of West Virginia, there to meet up with his stepfather, a man with the first name of Washington.
The story of this young man’s determined struggle to get educated despite extremely difficult circumstances is captivating. Just one tidbit: Slaves were not given last names, but on the first day of class in what then passed as a school, young Booker needed one. He writes: “I was in deep perplexity, because I knew that the teacher would demand of me at least two names, and I had only one. By the time the occasion came for the enrolling of my name, an idea occurred to me which I thought would make me equal to the situation; and so, when the teacher asked me what my full name was, I calmly told him ‘Booker Washington,’ as if I had been called by that name all my life; and by that name I have since been known.”
Years later, when the still-young Washington found himself starting the Tuskegee School from scratch, he had to teach his young charges the most basic life skills before he could hope to make scholars out of them. Another quote: “One thing I have always insisted upon at Tuskegee is that everywhere there should be absolute cleanliness. Over and over the students were reminded in those first years—and are reminded now—that people would excuse us for our poverty, for our lack of comforts and conveniences, but that they would not excuse us for our dirt.” Washington taught the young ex-slaves how to brush their teeth, how to bathe themselves, even how to sleep in a bed between two sheets.
Booker T. Washington worked quietly and diligently for many years, and through his efforts was able to make a significant practical contribution to the betterment of his race and, by extension, the entire nation. With Black History Month just recently passed, he is worthy of our attention and appreciation.